Rethinking Language Extinction: When sleeping languages reawaken

Written by Dr Diane Nelson

UNESCO has declared this to be an International Decade of Indigenous Languages, and the 21st of February International Mother Language Day. The urgency for these initiatives is reflected in a stark set of statistics: linguists estimate that by the end of the century, around 50% of the world’s 7000 languages will be at risk of becoming moribund (no longer transmitted to children), essentially a death sentence for half of the world’s languages. Researchers like David Harmon and Louisa Maffi point out the striking parallels between linguistic and cultural diversity and species biodiversity (what they term ‘biocultural diversity’), and the network of social, economic and environmental factors that are driving all of these these declines. There are now many projects to support speakers of the world’s endangered languages, from UNESCO’s decade of activities to grants to fund the documentation of languages before they disappear.

Why do languages disappear? UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger classifies a language as ‘extinct’ when “… it is no longer the first tongue that infants learn in their homes, and that the last speaker who did learn the language in that way has passed on within the last five decades.” We can be sure that throughout human history and prehistory, many thousands of languages have become extinct, through processes of evolutionary change (Old English, Latin, Old Church Slavonic), colonisation and genocide (the Indigenous languages of Tasmania, Taino in the Caribbean) or more gradually through language shift (Etruscan, Sumerian and Pictish). More recently, speakers of minoritised and Indigenous languages have been the target of discriminatory language policies as part of a process that some label linguicide.

There are parallels between the extinction of languages and the extinction of species. David Crystal talks about the notoriety that often lands on the last speaker of a language, like Ishi, the last speaker of Yahi, or Laura Fish Somersal, the last speaker of Wappo. In biology, the last member of a species is called an endling. When that individual dies, the species is extinct. But language extinction and species extinction are not identical processes. When languages disappear because of language shift, families and communities stop passing on a language to the next generation. But even when there are no fluent speakers left, echoes of the language often remain, like a negative image that lingers when you close your eyes. Lost languages live on in the names of towns, mountains and rivers, in family names, in fragments of songs, poems and rituals, and in numerals used for counting sheep. This sense that languages are imprinted in community memory is one of the reasons why many Indigenous people reject the label extinct in favour of sleeping languages or languages no longer spoken. Another motivation is a decolonial rejection of the enduring fetishisation of ‘extinct’ people and cultures, what Selk’nam activist Hema’ny Molina Vargas and others call “white humanist melancholia”. And the final reason to be critical of ‘extinction’ for languages is the crucial role that language plays in the reclamation of identity.

This brings us to examples where sleeping languages – those where no living speakers remain – become spoken languages again. These cases are rare, but they all have something in common: they happen at moments in time when a group of people decide to use language as a way to assert their identity through language. Sometimes, a single activist can generate enough momentum to revitalise a language. The most celebrated and successful example is Hebrew, which fell out of everyday use for nearly two thousand years before Jewish activist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda decided to bring it back. He coined new words to replace lexical gaps in Classical Hebrew and then coerced his son to speak only Hebrew at home, raising the first child native speaker in centuries. Language schools and a revitalisation campaign followed, and there are now around 9 million native speakers of Hebrew.

In the UK, the last speaker of Manx, Ned Maddrell, died in 1974. Activists set up Manx language teaching at both primary and secondary levels, as well as radio programmes and signage.  Dolly Pentreath is usually identified as the last speaker of Cornish and died in 1777. Several versions of revitalised Cornish have been proposed, but in recent years a standard orthography has been set and UNESCO has reclassified Cornish from ‘exinct’ to ‘critically endangered’. Both Manx and Cornish now have several thousand speakers each, and a small number of children are being raised as native speakers in Manx- and Cornish-speaking households.

Aboriginal Australians living around what is now Adelaide spoke the Kaurna language (Kaurna Warra). The British colonised South Australia in the 19th century and claimed the land as their own, forcing many Aboriginal people to resettle and occasionally killing them in violent massacres. The last speaker of Kaurna, Ivarityi, passed away in 1929. Starting in 1990 the linguist Rob Amery worked with the Kaurna community to draw together information from word lists, texts and grammars from French and German missionaries. Kaurna is now taught in Adelaide schools and is spoken at cultural events and some Kaurna homes. Speaker Lester-Irabinna Rigney describes the revitalisation of the language as an important “act of identity” for the Kaurna people.

Around the world, Indigenous people are reclaiming their cultures and languages, but they can run into stumbling blocks that highlight the lingering legacy of extractive research practices. The Penobscot Nation in the US state of Maine are trying to revitalise their sleeping language, which was documented in great detail by the non-Indigenous linguist Frank Siebert over a fifty year period. But when he died in 1998 he bequeathed his entire collection of unpublished field notes and manuscripts to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, which restricts public access to the archive. The efforts of the Penobscot Nation to reclaim their cultural heritage is stymied by the fact that they do not own the copyright to their language. This example reminds us that documentary linguistics has a colonial history of its own: for any language revitalisation project, ownership and autonomy must lie entirely with the community of speakers.